the ticking clock

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Deadlines and ticking clocks are all around us. The holidays are coming at a breathtaking rate, and everyone is thinking in terms of countdowns to parties, visits with family and friends, and of course, the New Year. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have a ticking clock in the background of their lives.

Your story needs a ticking clock too.

Whether it is a novel or short-story, a ticking clock in the background of your tale will build suspense and get your reader to turn the page. Marg McAlister uses the television series 24 as a great example of the ticking clock in action in her article Adding Suspense to a Novel – the Ticking Clock.

So how do you establish your ticking clock?

When you’re plotting your novel, look at your character sketch, or if you don’t use a character sketch, think about your protagonist and his/her goals. Of course, the quickest clue to your protagonist’s goals is the inciting event of the novel. Now examine how difficult those goals are to achieve and establish a deadline.

Figure out how many hours, days, or weeks your protagonist will need to accomplish his/her goals. Then give your protagonist obstacles and consequences for failure and make sure the stakes are high.

Sometimes you can have one ticking clock for an entire novel, but other stories will require that you change the reason for the ticking clock as your protagonist accomplishes goals. Ratchet up the tension by having your protagonist succeed at his/her goal, but the consequences are not what the reader or the protagonist expects. Whatever you do, keep that clock ticking in the background.

Use different clocks for different characters; remember we all have different stressors and deadlines we have to meet. While one person will face large deadlines with aplomb, making a split-second critical decision will cause the same individual to become unglued. Then have the events unfold to reflect the character’s panic.

What is the ticking clock in your novel or short-story and how do you use it to add suspense?


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3 Responses to the ticking clock

  1. Kelly Bryson says:

    I’ve got a few ticking clocks. 1. Lara only brings enough food for 7 days and isn’t sure how to get back to her world. 2. David’s mom is dying. 3. The DIA wants custody of Lara and the reader doesn’t know how long they’ll wait. These pressures each affect more than one character and between them, everybody is under some pressure from the clock- though they want different things.

    • Teresa says:

      Excellent examples, Kelly! I keep wondering what’s going to happen to Lara when her food supply runs out. 😉

      I’ve got Lucian trying to reach Rachael in time to adjure the demon, and Catarina trying to reach Lucian before he gets to Rachael. I’ve got to tighten some of my clocks on the final draft, but I like the way they’re coming out now.

  2. lawrenceez says:

    Hi Teresa,

    Thanks for the advice. It struck a chord. The ticking bomb issue is one of the biggest problems in my story, as there isn’t one. I need to find new ways of developing the suspense and adding dead lines.

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